India to build tsunami warning system

Lauching a deep ocean buoy to detect tsunamis Copyright: NOAA

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[NEW DELHI] India plans to install a deep-sea warning system to provide alerts of possible tsunamis, following the unexpected tsunami that struck its south-east coast and islands on 26 December, killing at least 10,000 people in the country, according to latest estimates (30 December).

India currently has 20 deep-sea buoys with sensors in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea. But they are not equipped with the pressure sensors needed for advance warning of giant tsunamis.

Science minister Kapil Sibal told reporters on Wednesday (29 December) that India needs to add 20 more of these buoys. It will also deploy between six and twelve Deep Ocean Assessment and Reporting Systems (DOARS), about six kilometers below the sea surface.

Essentially pressure sensors, the DOARS will be able to detect and record changes in seawater movements and transmit the signals via buoys to a satellite, which will in turn relay the information to stations on land.

The entire project will cost an estimated US$27 million and take two and a half years to complete, Sibal said.

Tsunamis are rare in the Indian Ocean, and the South Asian nations affected — India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives — did not have a tsunami warning system on the lines of the Pacific Tsunami Warning System that alerts 26 countries (see Lack of alert systems ‘increased tsunami death toll’).

Given the rarity of tsunamis in the region and the countries’ scarce economic resources, the south Asian countries did not previously consider a tsunami warning system to be a high priority.

Harsh Gupta, secretary of the Department of Ocean Development, told SciDev.Net that India will develop whatever instruments and sensors it can and procure the rest from abroad.

India also plans to liaise with countries in South-East Asia — such as Indonesia, Myanmar and Thailand — that already have the software for such warning systems, and will share data with its south Asian neighbours.

“Right now we will have an intellectual relationship with the Pacific system — sharing data and know-how informally,” says Gupta. “A more formal scientific link-up with the Pacific system can be done once the Indian Ocean system is in place.”

The issue of whether India should develop its own tsunami warning system or join the Pacific system has generated considerable debate since Sunday’s disaster. Sibal and Department of Science and Technology officials point out that the Pacific system only gives information in the eastern Pacific region, whereas South Asia lies to the west.

But Syed Qazim, former secretary of the Department of Ocean Development and currently vice-chair of the Society for Indian Ocean Studies, cautions that building up a tsunami prediction network in the Indian Ocean will be a “gigantic task” that would cost millions of dollars.

“But the question that will confront us soon will be: what will be the cost of predicting something which happens once in a century,” he told The Indian Express (see India ‘should join Pacific tsunami network’).

In a message to the University of Hyderabad on its convocation day on Wednesday, India’s president Abdul Kalam suggested India could either have an Indian control centre that is connected to the Pacific tsunami warning system, or an integrated technological solution comprising sensors, communications system, networking and high-intensity tidal warning systems.

Kalam pointed out that after an earthquake occurred, it took three hours for giant dynamic waves of tsunami dimensions to build up, and a tsunami warning system could have helped evacuate people living within the three-hour travel time from the epicentre of the earthquake.

But M. S. Swaminathan, chairman of the Chennai-based M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, points out that such an advance warning system will be useful only if there is a system of getting the information across to local communities in time.

Swaminathan suggests using community radio or even simple loudspeakers to convey any information alerts to local communities.

India’s Department of Science and Technology has convened a meeting of scientists early next month to discuss plans to set up the tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean.